The Digital Issue

For Better or Worse, Technology Is Taking Over the Health World

For many people over the past year and a half, the world has existed primarily through a screen. With social distancing measures in place to protect individuals from becoming infected with the coronavirus, technology has stepped in to fill the void of physical connections. It’s also become a space for navigating existing and new mental health conditions through virtual therapy sessions, meditation apps, mental health influencers, and beyond.

“Over the years, mental health and technology have started touching each other more and more, and the pandemic accelerated that in an unprecedented way,” says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, the head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. “This is especially the case because the pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health for everyone as we struggle to make sense of an overwhelming new world and can find mental health information and services online.” 

This shift is especially critical, with a tremendous spike occurring in mental health conditions. In the period between January and June 2019, 11% of US adults reported experiencing symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder. In January 2021, 10 months into the pandemic, in one survey that number increased to 41.1%. Research also points to a potential connection for some between having COVID-19 and developing a mental health condition—whether or not you previously had one.

The pandemic’s bridge between mental health and technology has helped to “meet the needs of many suffering from depression, anxiety, life transition, grief, family conflict, and addiction,” says Miyume McKinley, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Epiphany Counseling, Consulting & Treatment Services.

Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD

The risk of greater access is that the floodgates are open for anyone to say anything about mental health, and there’s no vetting process or way to truly check credibility.

— Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD

This increased reliance on technology to facilitate mental health care and support appears to be a permanent one. Torres-Mackie has witnessed mental health clinicians drop their apprehension around virtual services throughout the pandemic and believes they will continue for good.

“Almost all therapists seem to be at least offering virtual sessions, and a good portion have transitioned their practices to be entirely virtual, giving up their traditional in-person offices,” adds Carrie Torn, MSW, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The general public is also more receptive to technology’s expanded role in mental health care. “The pandemic has created a lasting relationship between technology, and it has helped increase access to mental health services across the world,” says McKinley. “There are lots of people seeking help who would not have done so prior to the pandemic, either due to the discomfort or because they simply didn’t know it was possible to obtain such services via technology.”

Accessibility Is a Tremendous Benefit of Technology

Every expert interviewed agreed: Accessibility is an undeniable and indispensable benefit of mental health’s increasing presence online. Torn points out, “We can access information, including mental health information and treatment like never before, and it’s low cost.”

A 2018 study found that, at the time, 74% of Americans didn’t view mental health as accessible to everyone. Participants cited long wait times, a lack of affordable options, low awareness, and social stigma as barriers to mental health care. The evolution of mental health and technology has alleviated some of these issues—whether it be through influencers creating open discussions around mental health and normalizing it or low-cost therapy apps. In addition, wait times may reduce when people are no longer tied to seeing a therapist in their immediate area.

While some people may still be apprehensive about trying digital therapy, research has shown that it is an effective strategy for managing your mental health. A 2020 review of 17 studies published in EClinicalMedicine found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions were at least as effective at reducing the severity of depression symptoms than in-person sessions. There wasn’t a significant difference in participant satisfaction between the two options.

There Are Limitations to Mental Health and Technology’s Increasing Closeness

One of the most prevalent limitations of technology-fueled mental health care and awareness is the possibility of misleading or inaccurate information.  

If you’re attending digital sessions with a therapist, it’s easy to check their qualifications and reviews. However, for most other online mental health resources, it can be more challenging but remains just as critical to verify their expertise and benefits. “The risk of greater access is that the floodgates are open for anyone to say anything about mental health, and there’s no vetting process or way to truly check credibility,” says Torres-Mackle.

To that point, James Giordano, PhD, MPhil, professor of neurology and ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center and author of the book “Neurotechnology: Premises, Potential, and Problems,” cautions that, while there are guiding institutions, the market still contains “unregulated products, resources, and services, many of which are available via the internet. Thus, it’s very important to engage due diligence when considering the use of any mental health technology.” 

online therapy

 Verywell / Alison Czinkota 

McKinley raises another valuable point: A person’s home is not always a space they can securely explore their mental health. “For many individuals, home is not a safe place due to abuse, addiction, toxic family, or unhealthy living environments,” she says. “Despite technology offering a means of support, if the home is not a safe place, many people won’t seek the help or mental health treatment that they need. For some, the therapy office is the only safe place they have.” Due to the pandemic and a general limit on private places outside of the home to dive into your personal feelings, someone in this situation may struggle to find opportunities for help.

Miyume McKinley, MSW, LCSW

There are lots of people seeking help that would not have done so prior to the pandemic, either due to the discomfort or because they simply didn’t know it was possible to obtain such services via technology.

— Miyume McKinley, MSW, LCSW

Torn explains that therapists who work for tech platforms can also suffer due to burnout and low pay. She claims that some of these platforms prioritize seeing new clients instead of providing time for existing clients to grow their relationship. “I’ve heard about clients having to jump from one therapist to the next, or therapists who can’t even leave stops open for their existing clients, and instead their schedule gets filled with new clients,” she says. “Therapists are burning out in general right now, and especially on these platforms, which leads to a lower quality of care for clients.”

Screen Time Can Also Have a Negative Impact

As mental health care continues to spread into online platforms, clinicians and individuals must contend with society’s growing addiction to tech and extended screen time’s negative aspects.

Social media, in particular, has been shown to impact an individual’s mental health negatively. A 2019 study looked at how social media affected feelings of social isolation in 1,178 students aged 18 to 30. While having a positive experience on social media didn’t improve it, each 10% increase in negative experiences elevated social isolation feelings by 13%.

Illustration of a an and woman using a dating app

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

While certain aspects like Zoom therapy and mental health influencers require looking at a screen, you can use other digital options such as meditation apps without constantly staring at your device.

What to Be Mindful of as You Explore Mental Health Within Technology

Nothing is all bad or all good and that stands true for mental health’s increased presence within technology. What’s critical is being aware that “technology is a tool, and just like any tool, its impact depends on how it's used,” says Torres-Mackie.

For example, technology can produce positive results if you use the digital space to access treatment that you may have struggled to otherwise, support your mental well-being, or gather helpful—and credible—information about mental health. In contrast, she explains that diving into social media or other avenues only to compare yourself with others and avoid your responsibilities can have negative repercussions on your mental health and relationships. 

Giordano expresses the importance of staying vigilant about your relationship with and reliance on tech and your power to control it. 

With that in mind, pay attention to how much time you spend online. “We are spending less time outside, and more time glued to our screens. People are constantly comparing their lives to someone else's on social media, making it harder to be present in the moment and actually live our lives,” says Torn. 

Between the increase in necessary services moving online and trying to connect with people through a screen, it’s critical to take time away from your devices. According to a 2018 study, changing your social media habits, in particular, can improve your overall well-being. Participants limited Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat use to 10 minutes a day per platform for three weeks. At the end of the study, they showed significant reductions in depression and loneliness compared to the control group. However, even the increased awareness of their social media use appeared to help the control group lower feelings of anxiety and fear of missing out.

“Remember, it’s okay to turn your phone off. It’s okay to turn notifications off for news, apps, and emails,” says McKinley. Take opportunities to step outside, spend time with loved ones, and explore screen-free self-care activities. She adds, “Most of the things in life that make life worthwhile cannot be found on our devices, apps, or through technology—it’s found within ourselves and each other.”

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. Published February 10, 2021.

  2. Taquet M, Luciano S, Geddes JR, Harrison PJ. Bidirectional associations between COVID-19 and psychiatric disorder: retrospective cohort studies of 62 354 COVID-19 cases in the USA. Lancet Psychiatry. 2021;8(2):130-140. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30462-4

  3. Luo C, Sanger N, Singhal N, et al. A comparison of electronically-delivered and face to face cognitive behavioural therapies in depressive disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine. 2020;24:100442. doi:10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100442

  4. Primack BA, Karim SA, Shensa A, Bowman N, Knight J, Sidani JE. Positive and negative experiences on social media and perceived social isolation. Am J Health Promot. 2019;33(6):859-868. doi:10.1177/0890117118824196

  5. Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J. No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2018;37(10):751-768. doi:10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751